Savage Neck Site Excavation
George Washington-Jefferson National Forest, Virginia, 2012
By Bert Wendell, PIT Volunteer
"Savage Neck Beach Awash with Prehistoric Artifacts"
The Savage Neck Archaeological Site (44NH478) is located on a strip of white sandy beach on the Chesapeake Bay side of Virginia's Eastern Shore near the town of Eastville in Northampton County, VA.
This is a place where the American Bald Eagle swoops down to the surface of the water to extract its next meal of fish. Deer and raccoon tracks can be seen in the damp sand at the waters' edge. Shore birds move quickly along the beach poking their bills into the sand looking for food. Just off shore a commercial fisherman in a white Chesapeake Bay Deadrise fishing boat retrieves his crab pots.
It is this availability of food sources, which exists along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, that drew prehistoric people to this area thousands of years ago. These people left behind in the sand and in shell middens evidence that they were hunting, fishing and living on the Savage Neck.
In October 2011 members of the Smithsonian Institution discovered and tested the Savage Neck Site. They found pieces of Mockley (shell tempered) and Nomini (crushed quartz tempered) ceramics which dated to the Middle Woodland period (500 BC - 300 AD). These ceramic shards along with other artifacts had washed out of their original locations by tidal wave actions, storm surges and rising Chesapeake Bay water levels.
To further evaluate this threatened prehistoric Native American archaeological site, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) conducted an excavation and field school on May 2-9, 2012. Professional archaeologists from VDHR and the USFS worked alongside volunteers from the Passport in Time (PIT) Program and the Archeological Society of Virginia (ASV). An average of 29 people worked on the site per day. Volunteers came from as far away as Olympia, WA and as near as Exmore, VA.
Mike Madden, USFS archaeologist with the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, said, "the Savage Neck's threatened site status is primarily due to the raising water level of the Chesapeake Bay." "During prehistoric times, the actual campsites were further out from the existing shore line," Madden said, "only at low tide levels can we attempt to locate and excavate these areas for artifacts." At high tide the water was only a couple of feet from the main excavation site which was located at the base of a sand dune bank covered with vegetation and large pieces of drift wood.
The archaeologist and volunteers sheltered themselves and the excavation units from the direct sun by using tent like shelters and tarps. They used a 2.5' x 2.5' drawing grid to systematically outline excavation units along the entire length of the site. The archaeologist and ASV Certification Students used a transit and stadia rod to take accurate measurements prior to, during and after excavation to determine the vertical relationship of the unit or feature with regard to the benchmark.
They began their work by removing the top layer of loose sand. As the more compacted sand/soil layer was exposed they used small hand trowels, wooden picks and paint brushes to expose and remove various types of shells, stone and ceramic shards. As each artifact was revealed, its exact location was measured within the unit and recorded. Once the artifact was removed from the unit, it was placed in a paper bag that was annotated with the site name and number, unit number, level within the unit where found, and the type of artifact found.
The removed layers of sand/soil were placed in plastic bags, tied off with a strip of plastic ribbon which was annotated with unit information and taken off site to be washed in a flotation device. Here the sand/soil was removed exposing smaller artifacts.
Once each unit was completely excavated down to the sterile sand/soil level, profile photographs were taken by Richard Guercin, USFS archaeologist. The recovered Savage Neck artifacts will be taken back to the VDHR Lab in Richmond, VA for further study. In the lab, the artifacts will be cleaned, sorted, photographs taken and each item cataloged. A final site report will be written and made available for future research and publication.
One of the most interesting units was a shell midden excavated by Charlie Mansen, an ASV Col. Howard MacCord Chapter member, along with several other volunteers. Not only did he find many broken shells and ceramic shards in the midden, but also several complete clam shells that were never broken open by the prehistoric occupants of the site.
Prehistoric people living along the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coast had a wide range of food available to them such as fish, mollusks, nuts, berries, deer, birds, water fowl and smaller mammals. The discards from this food supply were usually thrown into the midden. The midden was the trash dump where prehistoric people deposited shells, broken ceramics, bones and other discarded items. Over time, many layers built up of different types of shells such as hard-shell clams, oysters, scallops, whelk, razor clams, periwinkles and soft-shell clams.
Prehistoric people not only dumped shells into middens. Their ceramic makers crushed and mixed shells with clay to make pots and bowls. The bits of crushed shell acted as a tempering agent to help prevent the fired ceramics from cracking or shrinking during firing.
Mike Barber, Virginia's state archaeologist and ASV member, said, "in Virginia, it has been thought that prehistoric ceramic makers started using shell-temper about 2,000 years ago (200 - 900 AD). However, the shell dating process used by the Smithsonian has moved this date back in time to about 3,000 years ago (750 - 1,000 BC)." Barber further stated, "that there is a 1,000 years difference in time here that has to be dealt with by the archaeological community." He further stated, "the ceramic shards found at the Savage Neck Site contains scallop shell temper material which has a higher salt content then other types of shells." "There are more questions then answers", he said, while leaning against a large weather worn tree trunk that stretched the full width of the beach at high tide.
An open house was held at the site on Sunday May 6th with nearly hundred local residents attending. Several residents commented to Michelle Rosado, USFS archaeologist and PIT coordinator, that they were glad to see the Savage Neck area of the Eastern Shore get some of the archaeological attention that is paid to other parts of Virginia.
After all the archaeological work was completed; the excavation units back filled; shelter tents torn down; equipment removed; and the beach cleaned up, the last evidence that the archaeologists were there will be swept away by the next blowing wind and high tide.
Although this archaeological excavation produced only a limited number of artifacts, it could be said, that it is not so much what was found, but what was not found that sheds light on prehistoric peoples' activities along the Savage Neck's white sandy beaches on the Chesapeake Bay side of Virginia's Eastern Shore.